Abstract Painters. Jackson Pollock 1912 – 1956.


No._5,_1948 Pollock

Abstract painting is not a single movement, it has a longer history than many think and includes many styles, it can be traced back to 15th. century Russian icons in the Byzantine style that have abstract elements, up until the present day where many abstract artists are working. The Russian born Madame Blavatsky painted abstracts, working in the latter part of the 19th. century, she was a theosophist who painted her interpretations of dreams, inspired by themes she studied from ancient Eastern religions, she wished to return to ancient truths, believed in the transmigration of the soul and held a belief in an ante-natal state of existence, theosophists rejected dogma, their aim was to promote love, understanding and compassion. Then there was Helma af Klimt in Sweden, Emilie Alberg brought her work to our attention in a thread published on the site last year, Helma thought that she was in touch with spirits and that she received messages from the ‘High Master’ from an astral plain, she wrote copious notes to guide her paintings which she hoped would help to change society for the better.  In England in the 1930s the artist Ben Nicholson painted abstracts, his wife was the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Vassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and the Russian artist Malevich also painted abstracts, all very different in style from each other, they were searchig for a fourth dimension which had ‘overtones of Theosophy and monism which saw the untity of all things’ both spiritul and material. Kandinsky painting in Germany felt that colours had spiritual qualities, for example yellow as a typical earthly quality, disturbing;   blue is deep, supernatural, a typical heavenly colour;   green, a mixture of blue and yellow denotes stillness, peace;   red symbolised being alive and confident. He wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he attempted to depict a gravity free and direction-less space in his work, Paul Klee painted abstracts, he also had strong spiritual beliefs. In the 1950s and 1960s Bridget Riley in England painted what was called Op Art, composed of coloured  lines, she continues to work in this style she feels that there is an energy and flow depicted in her work.

I have chosen an abstract work by the artist Jackson Pollock born in 1912 in Wyoming, called No.5 painted in 1948. Pollock was adopted after the death within a short time of both his parents, he grew up in Arizona and California, he then moved to New York, a central  hub for artists, no longer Paris as had been the case in the early 1900s, he exhibited in the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery. Pollock was one of the most influential artists in  1950s American, he is called an Abstract Expressionist painter, he married another abstract artist, Lee Krasner who gave him moral support. His canvases were very large, sometimes twenty feet wide, painted while spread on his studio floor or on the ground on which he dripped, splashed and trailed liquid paint, a paint invented and sold commercially since 1936, he would apply the paint with hardened brushes, sticks , trowels or whatever he thought suitable, building up areas, creating depth gradually. He thought on a huge scale, many thought he painted without reason, that it was chaotic – it may in fact be possible that ‘he had an intuition of the nature of chaotic motion’ he ends up with a controlled structure, balanced and harmonious containing a range of textures, often described as a visual symphony. Pollock used the force of his whole body to apply the paint. He walked slowly around the canvas sometimes on the canvas, totally absorbed until he felt the work complete, he often worked with black paint or up to seven colours creating vibrating space, his work has been described as capturing the American dream, the canvas likened to a vast screen, an American wilderness.

Pollock fought to find his own voice against all the criticism that came his way, he was also fighting to overcome alcoholism. Between the years 1938 and 1941 he underwent Jungian psychotherapy in a bid to recover, his work is said to have ben influenced by Jungian concepts and archetypes –  ‘universal, archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious’. This style of painting has been called  ‘drip painting’, Pollock acknowledged that he was influenced by the work of the Ukrainian artist Janet Sobel working in the 1940s.  Fractals have been seen in his work where small areas are repeated reducing in size, each area similar to the whole work.

Painting No. 5 sold in 2006 for 140 million dollars, it has become an investment, helped no doubt by the fact that it was a new kind of painting. Sadly his golden period ended in 1951, he may have had bi-polar disorder, he had rages and was bitter at times, he began drinking again, his best work was behind him, he died in a car accident in 1956 aged forty four, driving while intoxicated.

In a recent television programme Dr. James Fox noted that the time around the time Pollock was working America was buzzing with creativity, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, a stream of consciousness novel and jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk were composing and playing.

Information and image from wikipedia and other web sites.

8 thoughts on “Abstract Painters. Jackson Pollock 1912 – 1956.

  1. Hi Norma,
    I find it difficult to see any ‘controlled structure’ or ‘balance’, let alone archetypes in Pollock’s work. Do you experience these qualities? If so, can you put anything in words that would help me see them?

    1. Hi Robert,
      I have not found this painting easy to understand but I hoped it would make a change and be controversial! The painting does express I think Pollock’s mental energy, the drive in his thinking, revealed by the physical motion of painting, the internal structure of his mind laid bare, the motive behind much expressionist painting. I see it as a psychologically driven work in the extreme, a metaphor for his state of mind, depicted as an intricate spider’s web with inter-connecting neurons (in yellow paint) interspersed with knots , clumps of neurons. That is how I think about it, a rather fanciful idea maybe. Perhaps his demons were the archetypes mentioned by art critics?
      He chose the type of paint to use for each layer carefully, some was thinned others not, some laid wet on wet, some when dry. Pollock said there is no need for subject matter outside of ourselves, it is how he expressed the modern mechanical age, he thought that each age finds its own technique, his was immediate and direct.

      1. Hi Norma, I’m pleased you’ve taken the plunge with expressionist painters, about whom I know almost next to nothing, but whose creations I often enjoy.

        I’ve seen a video of Pollock striding about dripping and splashing arcs of drips across his canvas on the floor, and he looks to me somewhere between uncontrolled exuberance and grim purpose, with a strong dash of “Who’s a clever boy, then?!”

        His work brings up the nice feeling I’ve described when I’ve looked at pathways through the African bush, trodden by thousands of bare feet and bicycle tracks, or thousands of human hands on the lintel of a door, a mixture of dirt, and grease, and visits, and hospitality, and maybe fury, or disappointment, or lust or joy in the hearts of those who enter or leave. Or the fascination of matted twigs and debris in a slow moving river. How life moves and changes and bottle-necks, and gives way under it’s own momentum.

        I doubt Pollock means us to discover his intentions in his work, if it can be called work. And I daresay he enjoys the fame it’s brought him, and the money!

        More please!

      2. Hi Peter,
        The wonderfully descriptive layers of meaning you find in this painting (in a way similar to the many layers of paint Pollock applied), has cheered me up no end. I discovered none of that joyful flamboyance when I searched the image, only, tentatively, a spider’s web of neural tracks, I would have liked to see the original to have a better opportunity to think about it and the effect it had on me. Pollock was determind to express himself in this new way and for that I salute his bravery and imagination, artists need freedom to work without too many restrictions, of any kind. Who knows how his work may have developed had he not died at such a young age?

    1. For some reason only Robert’s first comment was showing when I looked at this and posted my comment. The replies from Norma and Peter only showed up after my comment was posted. Anyway, I am fascinated to discover what you all see in it and can relate to the “network diagram of neural circuitry” that Robert mentions.

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